Last week I wrote about Lois Wilson as an example of an amazing little-known woman leader. I hadn’t planned to have more to say about women leaders in the month celebrating women in history and our daily lives. Then, a friend of mine, Lois Rosado, wrote an article for our local Greenbelt News Review (March 17, 2022) entitled Names Not Frequently Mentioned as part of the paper’s series on Women History. Lois moved to Greenbelt from New York where she had the opportunity to be involved with Bayard Rustin and other civil rights leaders and serves as a leader of numerous efforts both to educate about racial disparities and to work for change.
Consistent with our learning about how poorly our history books told the story of race in America, Lois points out how they “seldom include information about the roles women performed during critical moments of American history or world history.”
As examples, Lois offers the contrast between our knowledge of the Minutemen who fought for U.S. independence and our ignorance of Sybil Ludington, “a 16 year old who rode through the night in upstate New York to warn independence fighters of a pending British attack.”
Lois also names 16-year-old Susan King Taylor who escaped enslavement and was encouraged by Clara Barton to become a nurse. “She traveled with her husband’s unit, the 33rd United States Colored Troops during the Civil War, and served as a nurse and launderer. After the war, she formed the Boston Branch of the Women’s Relief Corps to assist newly freed enslaved people.”
Over the weekend, Lois’ article was top of mind as Geraldine and I saw the movie “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism” at our local theatre. Blending lessons from his own life growing up as an African-American in Memphis, Jeffrey Robinson powerfully recalls the reality of how white supremacy has shaped America while systematically denying and punishing African-Americans and other people of color.
This movie is not an angry recitation of wrongs done, though it could be. Instead, it is a fact-based story of our reality and an invitation and plea to all Americans to face our history so we don’t continue to repeat it. To me, the most powerful and poignant moment in the film was Robinson’s representation of the tipping point in advancing racial equity and justice. For brief periods during Reconstruction after the Civil War and in the 1960s when civil rights legislation was passed, our nation appeared to be headed to more equality. Each time, white political and economic interests combined to slow down and reverse gains in racial equity. We are at one of those tipping points now, where the regression is well underway.
Until George Floyd’s murder, I paid superficial attention to news stories about Black people killed by police or white violence. I vaguely remember Rodney King and had heard a little about Emmett Till. Robinson in “Who We Are” demonstrates the consistent and ongoing loss of life to police and other race-motivated violence over time. He visits a tree in one community known as the lynching tree where hundreds of Blacks were hung.
As I watched this vivid portrayal of our history, I saw the courage of little-known women leaders. A mother, whose son was shot by the police and described as a “thug” by the media, decided to dedicate the rest of her life to ending violence against Blacks. Another woman leader was on the City Council in a southern town. She asked herself what was the one thing she could do that year to make a difference. She decided it was to organize to have the statutes of Confederate army “heroes” removed. She brought the community together and educated others about how these statues are a direct reminder to every Black citizen of all the injustice endured through slavery. She was successful in having the statues removed!
Whatever the justice issue, we need each other to make progress towards more justice and equity. Women, like people of color, have had to fight and continue to fight to be heard and to lead. The Supreme Court nomination process for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson makes that painfully obvious. I am grateful for these courageous leaders and the ways we are reminded of their sacrifice and courage.
To really change the tipping point forever, we all need to ask what’s mine to do and do it.